Right now across the country, there are new graduate student arriving in the classroom (both real and virtual) to start their academic journey towards a Master’s degree in Library Science. It’s hard for me to believe that I only graduated six years ago and have only been on the job in a librarian capacity for five years (this September will be my fifth year anniversary). It certainly has been a roller coaster ride for me in those five years and has taken me in directions that I didn’t think I would be ending up. After struggling with a previous career in commercial horticulture and a misfire by way of a year in law school, it is been a relief to finally find my niche in the world.
As such, I’d to offer advice to the incoming MLS class in the form that most commonly unsolicited counsel takes these days: a blog post from a peer in the profession. So, without further ado, here’s what I advise the newest and latest class of librarians.
“You Are Not Prepared”
It has become a common refrain online that the MLS program does not prepare its graduates for the larger and exponentially more complex library world. It raises the expectation that graduates should be trained to handle any possible situation that could ever arise in any type of library. I guess it makes sense when people expect doctors and lawyers to finish their advanced degrees being able to treat any illness or disease known to humankind or file any legal document and be able to present flawlessly in any level of court.
It is my fervent hope that the degree will prepare graduate students in the principles of library science, knowledge of the canon elements of the degree (*coughCatalogingcough*), and some strategies for dealing with issues at the library, be it personnel, building, or community related. More importantly, I would hope it would nurture critical thinking skills that act within the framework of philosophies of library science so that projects, services, and solutions can be built and/or adapted to your current working environment. Maintaining the mission of the library within a shifting environment (be it funding, oversight, community, or technology) requires assessment and critical thinking skills that incorporate the beliefs of the profession.
Because, in all seriousness, nothing in grad school can prepare you for dealing with obstructive administration, cut throat vendors, staff ennui, and/or people who insist on shitting on the bathroom floor. There is no preparation for these aspects except the real deal.
Learn Paper, Breathe Digital
I take this lesson from my first semester at law school. We were not given Westlaw and LexisNexis accounts because, well, those things are expensive. My class learned how to research a brief based only what was available to us through the case books. It gave me a new appreciation for the texts and how they would lead me down other trails where the arguments and law were in contention.
There is a truth to the common refrain, “Not everything is online.” Hell, in my library, there is an entire vertical file full of things that are most certainly not online, a few maps from the 1800’s that are not online, and a bevy of local resources that will never ever show up in a Google search. Anyone who has done any genealogy work knows that the digital trail goes cold quickly and that the path to the past is in musty burial records, old church notes, and trapped in a paper medium somewhere waiting to be discovered. The information in the offline world still dwarfs that the seemingly limitless online one.
This is not simply to sing the praises of physical resources, but to know the when an online search will suffice versus when to hit the physical materials. A lot of the ‘reference’ work that happens these days can be handled by a simply online search, but the more in-depth questions can and will take you offline. It’s about knowing both worlds and being able to flow between them; it’s about being able to straddle the old world of print and dust with the new world of digital and platforms. The analog world has not been abandoned in the slightest, but drawn into greater contrast with the digital one.
Join A Library Organization (But Only If You Plan On Showing Up)
Library organizations are like gyms: anyone can join them. You can join one to have another line on your resume which only tells your perspective employer that you have the ability to fill out a registration form and sign a check that won’t bounce. Congratulations, you’ve shown an superficial interest in your chosen field!
You have to treat it like a gym: great that you’ve joined, even better that you’ll show up and put in the time to build a better you. Why? First, it’ll never be cheaper to join. Whether you are joining the ALA or your state organization, the student rate is cheap compared to the regular membership rate. Second, you can get more than just one resume line out your membership by showing that you can work on projects and committees that relate back to your field of interest. It’s showing a commitment to what interests you in the field and how you are playing a part in changing or furthering it. Third, there are excellent networking opportunities that allow you to make contacts that will help you finding a job. The last research statistic I saw on this topic is that the leading factor in finding a job was getting a lead from someone you know; library organizations are excellent at this kind of relationship building.
Use these aspects to your advantage to get a foot in the door, a better idea of the field, and start off your career with a slight advantage over others. It’s this kind of small boost that will make a difference when an employer is sifting through dozens of applications looking for the right person.
Whether you maintain your memberships after you get in the field is up to you. Personally, I’ve dropped mine for various reasons. There are advantages and disadvantages to keeping or discarding them so your mileage may vary. While I work well with others, I did not work with other’s bureaucracy or social dramas. So I’ve stayed outside for the time being, but that’s a whole other post.
When I started my graduate program, I thought I’d end up in a law library. I was just coming off of law school, so why not? Then I thought I’d work in an academic library just as I had as a graduate assistant and an intern. But I ended up in a public library and never felt more at home.
My point is not a new one; the path we take in life doesn’t always the straight kind. But recognizing the existence of different paths and opportunities is something to be mindful of as the graduate program will expose you to other types of libraries and other kinds of librarians. Take the time to examine other paths and field before you really settle down on one or two. I entered graduate school with one idea in mind, left with another, and ended up in a completely different spot. It worked out well for me and it can for you.
You Don’t Need Permission
For a multitude of reasons, there are still those within the profession beholden to the idea that one has to wait their turn, make their bones, or otherwise have to ‘earn’ the right of recognition in order to start or carry out professional projects. This is fantasy bullshit, an enduring relic of a belief that awards subject to whose turn it is rather than who merits it, that those new to the profession must bolster the old guard before striking their own paths, and that seniority within the field is the measure of a person’s worth and the lens in which their contribution must be measured.
Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.
In the five years I’ve been working in the field, I’ve organized conferences, spoken at events, carried out local and national advocacy efforts, written for a professional journal, and probably a bunch of other things I’m forgetting. Some of those things, others have failed, and more are somewhere between the two points. Certainly for some of these things I had to seek permission for one thing or another at some point, but it wasn’t at the moment I decided to do it. This isn’t a license to run on a whim, but to take an idea, do some homework, and get it off the ground. The world will not wait.
I’d be curious to see what other advice my peers would offer to new Library Science graduate students. I hope they’ll leave a comment or link to this post on their blog. I’ll have to revisit this in a year and see if it holds true. In the meantime, welcome new graduate students and best of luck in your endeavors.